Navigating the Line Between Okay and Allowed to Not Be Okay

Troy Christmas 2000

So it’s been a while.

I allowed myself to get swallowed into graduate school and neglected a lot of other things (I can’t remember the last time I ran more than twice in a week and after two failed attempts at baking in my new apartment kitchen, I have given up). Probably wasn’t my best plan.

Here we are. Today marks the 14 year anniversary of my brother’s death. Fourteen years since I watched my brother walk past me for the last time. Fourteen years since the day that changed everything. In that 14 years I have graduated 3 times, met the love of my life, got into grad school, ran multiple half marathons, made friends, lost friends, moved lots. A lot has happened and at many of the pivotal moments I have asked myself – what would Troy think? How would he behave? Would I be annoyed at him the way I get annoyed at my other brother? Would I have extra nephews and nieces to buy presents for this Christmas? In short – there are a lot of what if’s, a lot of questions lingering in my mind.

Sitting back today I realized how different these questions have become for me. How much I have come to accept the world as it is. Some days are tough. Some days feel like a knife is still twisting in my chest. Some days I struggle to catch my breath amongst the crushing sense of loss. Key word there was some days. Some days. Some days I cry, some days I am happy and I almost forget for a second that I am the girl whose brother died. I think the days I realize both – that I am happy and that I am the girl whose brother committed suicide – are the hardest because part of me still feels guilty for feeling such pure and simple joy.

I’ve thought about this for a while, last Saturday when we went to Troy, Michigan, I realized, I no longer clung to his memory. I was okay and I had so much more in my life than his presence (or lack thereof). That stung a bit. Like I was betraying his memory in some horrible way. The thing is that the more I thought of it, the more I realized – this is just the new stage of grief – the point you return to living. It is complicated walking the line between being okay, feeling like you’re not allowed to be okay, and feeling like you’re also not allowed to not be okay. No one warned me about this stage of grief.

At this point I feel like I should offer some sagely wisdom, about what I really don’t know.  Maybe I should have some wisdom about navigating this complicated point, but I don’t. All I have is this – accept it. Be okay, or be not okay. Be happy or be sad.

Just be.

There’s this great concept/therapy in psychology called mindfulness I feel is particularly salient in this conversation. Mindfulness is in essence, being. It is being fully aware of your body and your thoughts and accepting  them without changing anything. Beyond grief, I think we often tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be feeling things, that we should be okay, we should manage our stresses better, we should plan better, we should be smarter, faster, cooler, prettier. Truth is any constructions about what we should be are inherently arbitrary; travel to a different to a country or visit another family and you will find different rules.

Mindfulness is beautifully simple – sit with your eyes closed, your feet flat, and your back straight and focus on your breathing; the flow of oxygen into your lungs and blood stream and carbon dioxide out. Accept your thoughts as they come to you, do not judge them or ruminate on them. Recognize them and return to your breath.

Pretty simple eh?

That’s all I have for today – be. If you are grieving, regardless of the stage, accept your feelings as your own. Grief and loss don’t just disappear. There is not some magic day when everything feels okay, and there will probably always be days you are not okay, there may even be days you’re not entirely sure either way if you’re totally okay or not okay at all. All of these days are categorically okay.

Even if you are not grieving, practice being with the moment and accepting you as you are. Accept your feelings, in all their messiness. Lastly, accept others as much as you accept yourself (and the other way around).

Just be. Unless you can be Batman. I would always recommend being Batman.

Decisions are the worst

Decisions difficult2

This is going to be a bold statement, but I need to say it anyways. Decisions are right up there with filing my taxes. Yes, I say this as an individual who bought and returned approximately 6 laptops when picking one and who nearly signed two leases when hunting for an apartment in Windsor. As a tangent, this was after seeing 21 apartments in 42 hours, as far as my father could tell the tour was approximately 24 hours too long and could have ended with the first apartment we saw that was livable, not 3 days after the lease was signed as I continued to peruse Kijiji for apartments. So maybe I am not qualified to make such a statement, perhaps I am just a poor decision maker and the fault is entirely my own. I swear the fault is not entirely my own though. I blame the internet and the culture we have created surrounding choices and their rude cousins, decisions.

I read Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance this summer and it really struck a chord with something I have been attempting to articulate for months – there are too many choices and because there are so many choices we are plagued by a belief that there has to be a better model. There’s always something better, so we are perpetually disappointed with what we have. Choices and decisions are a luxury, one we should be grateful for, but instead we have allowed them to become the bane of our existence.

We live in a world essentially without limits. If you are willing to search hard enough and/or pay enough, you can have anything. Our world is rapidly advancing, new technologies are being invented every day, and things exist today that my grandparents only dreamed of (and in some cases never dreamed of, but hey – progress is creating something people didn’t know they needed). The cellphone I hold in my hand is relatively new – it just came out this calendar year, and yet already there are phones with better cameras, faster processors, or a screen that drops off the edge so my icons don’t get in the way. With the knowledge that newer and better phones are constantly being released it’s probably a good thing my boyfriend bought mine for my birthday so that I didn’t have to face the sea of options and drive him nuts for 3 weeks trying to pick one.information_overload-2

This not so tiny device, which only properly fits in the pockets of two pairs of my pants, can tell me not only singles in my area, it tells me what my friends are up to, it tells me about the wedding that girl I like to stalk on Facebook went to (don’t lie we all have at least one of those). It can also tell me the reviews for the 20 nearest restaurants, what movies are playing at the 3 nearest theaters (and buy the tickets), and answer just about any question I throw at it with 2.4 million hits in 0.25 second or less. Surprisingly all this info doesn’t make anything easier. Even a restaurant review must be taken with a grain of salt (see what I did there? ;)). In psychology we talk about sampling bias, in this case, maybe only people who really like reviewing things or who REALLY hated the service (they may have been rude customers too) reviewed the restaurant. So we’re not getting a clear picture of reality. We’re just getting a lot more opinions involved in our decisions.

The internet makes me more aware of the world around me (you know, when I am not using it to look up cats and pigmy goat videos) and it makes me aware of the 2.4 million ways I could sort out whatever problem I brought to it; but it also makes me aware of how poorly my plan was and how fabulous some other people’s lives are. Hello, Facebook, I’m looking at you.

I got into grad school. Six years from now I should be walking out with a PhD in clinical psychology, but I mean there are other schools – what if this wasn’t the ideal option? Let’s be real – with my boyfriend now 8 hours away from me, ideal is not how I would describe Windsor. Really, “GRAD SCHOOL! Yay! With a supervisor available in my desired research area!! Double yay!” That’s where my head should have been. Instead it was wandering the halls of Queen’s libraries and gazing at the Ottawa skyline.

I hem and haw over a lot of “good decisions;” afraid there would be a better one just around the corner. This culture of comparison leads to a lot of progress to be sure, but it also breeds a lot of disappointment and a generally non-committal generation. We are all waiting on the next best thing so why would we settle on what’s best right now. Even worse is when we know there is a better choice out there but it is inaccessible to us. Like the newer, shinier faster, cell phone that we can’t have because we are locked into a contract. Or your best friend’s boyfriend, who is totally swoon worthy. Or the vacation spot you saw but in no way can afford.ursula tough choices

I am here to let you in on a little secret though. In social psychology we talked about the principles of decision making and one of the most fascinating things I learned (aside from how to make someone do what you want – but that’s classified information) is that people become polarized with their decisions. Once we make a decision we perceive to be final and irrevocable, we start to accept our decision, and then we start to become more confident that we made the right decision. For a cool TED talk on this topic click here.

So the lesson is simple. Accept that you can never have access to every option, be it due to time constraints, financial situation, geographic location, point in your career, or even point in your cup of coffee. So at the end of the day – pick something you like and accept that. Pick something you like and get off the internet.

This is Adulthood

uphill

So busy has been an understatement the last few months as I wrapped up grad apps and started back into research. [Fortunately all the stress of the application process turned out to be useful – I’m in! In September I officially start my Masters!!] Don’t get me wrong, I am beyond excited to have been accepted into grad school, but at this point I am mildly terrified. When I moved to Ottawa, I moved close to my brother and my dad’s side of the family so it wasn’t as scary. Looking back on it I feel like I am in the exact same place now as I was then – a room full of boxes and a huge move in the works. Except now I am an Adult. I am expected to be mature enough to not be terrified by the prospect of moving 4 hours from anyone I know. Or you know I think that was tucked somewhere in the fine print of the contract.

So basically I spend my days waffling between:

 Jumping up and down in random places in a fit of exuberance...

YAY GRAD SCHOOL!!! THIS IS SO AWESOME!!! WEEEEEE!!

and…

 Oh wait. I am supposed to be responsible now? I have to know things?!

Oh wait. I am supposed to be responsible now? I have to know things?!

oh my god what

But I mean somewhere in there is me figuring out this whole Adult thing.

I’ve been working for a year with my parents and it still throws me off though when people come to me as a sort of authority in things at work. When people come to me for direction.

This shift back to grad school has always been my plan, but I meant a plan and reality it turns out are two very different things. Now that I have packed up and officially moved out of Ottawa and am actively hunting for apartments, I am coming to realize the identity shift that came with all these plans coming to fruition. I submitted a review of my supervisor’s grant proposal Friday morning and realized that my opinion is being taken into account. I am no longer a passive learner expected to bathe in the glorious knowledge of my professors. I am expected to have an opinion and be able to cogently defend it. I am also expected to know what cogently means (legit – it was a word in the GRE Vocab list). I am expected to further the knowledge of my field and create a sense of confidence in my abilities. I am being trained to help people mentally heal. That’s a lot of responsibility for a lowly twenty-something.

I am now an adult, but what is that? I still have little understanding of how mortgages really work. I don’t understand the benefit of fixed over variable mortgage rates. And I only learned how to drywall two weeks ago.  I was 21 before I learned to change a tire. Living in residence, my basement apartment, and the house I eventually settled in were progressively independent ventures, but this feels different. This is me. Financially independent. Responsible for every bill. Calling around for insurance rates and driving in an overly cautious manner to maximize my insurance discount (and calling them to complain when the guy in front of me slammed on his brakes. But it’s not my faullltttt!). Me, as an adult. 4 hours from literally anyone I know.  On my own.

Like the baby ducklings in front of (back of?) my house - time to do the first solo journey.

Like the baby ducklings in front of (back of?) my house – time to do the first solo journey.

Of course I am filled with paranoia – what if something goes wrong? My toilet is running uncontrollably? My car won’t start? Problem with being in a lot of university programs is that they are great for preparing you for your career. I can talk about psychology for days. I love psych. Problem is that “Quantitative Methods in Psychology I/II” didn’t cover filing your taxes and balancing the budget. There was no “Dealing with minor plumbing problems” or “Why Your Car Won’t Start 101” in my program. So I am adult, but in many ways I still feel like I am meant to be supervised. It drives me nuts that my mom still reminds me to look both ways before crossing the street and reminds me how to properly wash dishes, but am I totally ready to be a independent responsible adult?

Let’s look at the facts:

  1. Every day I wave hello to the pigmy goats, llamas, and other farm animals on my way to and from work.

    Thank you internet for always providing umpteen billion pictures of cute animals.

    Thank you internet for always providing umpteen billion pictures of cute animals.

  2. I still giggle every time I think of the goat I saw running around the farm yard that skidded in the snow when he attempted to stop.
  3. After searching for a pigmy goat picture to portray the view on my drive to work (did I mention they also have miniature reindeer and big fluffy llamas that sit facing the road?!) I spent a further 10 minutes giggling over photos of baby farm animals.
  4. The closest I have come to doing laundry lately is putting things in the machine and turning it on. The clothes mysteriously appear folded in my room after 24 hours

    Mom went to Mexico for 11 days. It was rough.

    Mom went to Mexico for 11 days. It was rough.

  5. Last week I yelled at my fish for not eating.

    “Why are you sleeping?!” If I ain’t getting nap time ain’t nobody getting nap time!

  6. I cede my pillow to my cat on a nightly basis.

    She looks so happy though.

    She looks so happy though.

  7. I fully believe timbits are an acceptable breakfast.
  8. I haven’t made my bed in 5 days except for the morning after I had a particularly fitful sleep I rearranged the sheets to be at least on the bed.
  9. It took me those 5 days to put away the clothes that had mysteriously appeared the week before.
  10. My carry-on sized suitcase is still half packed because I am too lazy to finish the job (I’m living in box city right now thanks to this half-moved state. What’s one more box?!)
  11. The muffler of my car broke two weeks ago (of course in the middle of no where!) and I had no freaking clue what to do about it, whether it was driveable, or how much it would cost.

Okay so it looks pretty bad, but I mean I’ve lived solo before. I remember to feed the cat (okay, when she very loudly demands I remember. But I remember to buy the food. Mostly.) I’ve got the grocery shopping thing nailed. I can cook and bake things. I know how to do laundry (even if I elect not to do it as frequently as my mother feels I should). Worst case, I know how to make really tasty icing for bad days. Shouldn’t be that bad? [For the record, the dedication to fill the fridge and use its contents to make delicious things are how I rationalize my lack of attention to the laundry. It’s a fair trade.].

Either way, ready of not, here it is. I am an adult. I am expected to pay my taxes, vote (and not just by inni-meeny-minee-moe, using a real, informed opinion), renew licenses and health cards in a timely manner, show up to work on time, to be accountable to something/someone other than my childish whims. They say the devil is in the details, and maybe I haven’t got the sense of responsibility sorted out just yet, but baby steps. You know. Figure out how to do the dishes before I run out of plates.

I am an adult. Hear me roar. Or mew like a kitten.

Yeah. Let’s go with mewing.

At least I figure out that I put on my big girl panties sometime in the last 4 years without noticing.

Whether I realized it or not,  maybe I figured out adulthood a long time ago.